Kew Gardens reopens with new installations The Secret World of Plants 1 May – 19 September 2021

Kew Gardens’ summer programme asks ‘What do plants really mean to you?’ and ‘Can you see beyond the green?’ to help us embrace the wonderfully weird world of plant biodiversity through newly commissioned interactive art installations using music, sound and colour. Large-scale, immersive ‘plantscapes’ spread out across Kew Gardens celebrate British biodiversity and warn of its decline. The magical atmosphere helps us tune in to musical symphonies created by the natural sounds of plants and trees. In addition to Secret World of Plants installations, the Naturally Brilliant Colour art exhibition in the galleries showcases the brightest colours found in nature. 

As my first official press preview after a year spent largely indoors, it’s been emotional to attend the new installation at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, the leading plant institute and UNESCO World Heritage site, which is a special place even without props or exhibitions. The new installation aims to help families reconnect with the incredible nature that surrounds us. 

Designed to appeal to all ages, the Secret World of Plants festival is open throughout the summer with after-hours events and paid for activities taking place onsite.

Plant blindness and the ‘wall of green’

Weird, wonderful, and with life-saving potential, plants are brought to life by large-scale art installations and a programme of intriguing activities designed to capture the imagination of adults and children alike. Visitors to Kew Gardens can gain an entirely different perspective on the ‘wall of green’ – a visual effect caused by what is commonly known as ‘plant blindness’.

Plant blindness occurs partly because the human eye sees green objects much better than other coloured objects, and, as plants tend to be similar in colour and virtually still, human brains tend to group them together into one ‘wall of green’.

Re-creating sandy dunes at Kew Gardens

The beauty of British biodiversity

As a result of the national restrictions throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, many people have found a renewed connection with, and appreciation for the natural world. Through the Secret World of Plants, RBG Kew encourages visitors to explore this connection on a deeper level, focusing on the biodiversity found on our doorsteps that we may have previously taken for granted. The word ‘biodiversity’ often conjures dense tropical rainforests or imposing alpine peaks, but this summer Kew is asking visitors to consider the wealth of flora that surrounds our homes, schools, and workplaces – the plants of our childhoods, and, if we take care of them, of many childhoods to come.


Playful plantscapes

At the heart of the festival there are six ‘plantscapes’ – large-scale, immersive biomes representing contrasting landscapes found across the UK, but rarely experienced in such vivid detail. Each landscape – sand dune; moorland; marsh and meadow; hedgerow; woodland; and urban – is inspired by the UK’s priority habitats in the Biodiversity Action Plan: an internationally recognised programme addressing threatened species and habitats. Remotely designed by Seattle-based artist Vaughn Bell, each plantscape has been specially curated alongside our world-renowned team of horticultural experts using over 100 plant species in total. Visitors are invited to literally place themselves within these monumental landscapes via playful head-holes, and get a new, unique glimpse into these incredible, biodiverse and threatened UK landscapes.

I truly enjoyed the experience of being at eye-level with the grass and plants. 

Outside the steamy, tropical Palm House, there’s the chilly terrain of the UK’s moorlands, replete with natural rise-and-falls, purple moor grass and the delicate hanging harebell (Campanula rotundifolia). Visitors can take a trip to the unstructured slopes of a sand dune and become lost in tall grasses as they try to spot sea holly (Eryngium maritimum), used by the Elizabethans as an aphrodisiac. For those who favour woodlands, a dense, immersive experience awaits, or visitors can learn how two habitats come together in a floral amphitheatre, as meadow turns to marsh with pale violet meadow cranesbill (Geranium pratense) and deep purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria). En route to the Temperate House – the largest surviving Victorian glasshouse and home to some of the world’s most vulnerable plants – families can enjoy the old British favourite – hedgerow, peppered with familiar foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea), or head to the Princess of Wales Conservatory where they will find playful child-size houses, designed to embrace the growing trend for green roofs in our urban environment. 

The programme includes a botanical symphony created by the collaboration between Alex Metcalf, artist and founder of the Tree Listening Project, and Carol J Jones, composer. I loved the ‘Tree listening’ experience including the opportunity to hear the inner workings of a tree, and the different noises made throughout the day as they shift and absorb water. Four majestic oaks have sound domes suspended in their branches offering a variety of tree noises combined with specially commissioned classical compositions that give visitors a unique insight into the movements of a tree throughout the day.

A further artistic installation Extinction Songs by Jason Singh createa a specially commissioned sound experience that uses naturally occurring ‘biodata’ from plants to create a musical score. Artist, musician, beatboxer and composer, Singh uses technology to record the electrical signals of plants, and then transforms them into beautiful songs of survival which can be heard in the iconic Temperate House. Across festival weekends, Kew is planning a series of live concerts with musicians who will respond to these songs as they are created live, so that the plants become not only the musicians but also the composers. 

I will definitely attend these live botanical gigs. The sound of plants is truly magical. 

New seating to enjoy Kew Gardens’ trees from a different perspective

Designer Paul Cocksedge’s installation, Please Be Seated, takes the form of monumental and playful architectural seating, designed to encourage people to sit and reflect while taking in the relaxing scent of a specially planted rock rose circle.


Naturally Brilliant Colour exhibition

I also enjoyed Kew’s bold, contemporary new exhibition at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art. The brightest colours ever to have been created are on display for the very first time at Kew Gardens this summer. A new type of colour, ‘Pure Structural Colour’, is a cutting-edge piece of technology developed by scientific researchers at Lifescaped lab and takes inspiration from the natural world to synthetically produce any shade of colour in its most vivid form. This new exhibition takes visitors on a journey from the very origins of colour on Earth, to ways in which artists have attempted to depict nature’s brightest hues, up to the creation of Pure Structural Colour and its aesthetic potential in the art world and beyond.


The Little Gardener

During the second May half term (Saturday 29th May – Sunday 6th June 2021 – 11am, 12.30pm, 2.30pm & 4pm), for the youngest visitors, there will be a theatrical show from How It Ended, adapted from the book The Little Gardener by Emily Hughes. The show is performed inside a small greenhouse with four half hour performances every day. 


Evening events 

As the last rays of light are cast across the Gardens, the secrets of the plant world come into their own. Visitors can enjoy the late-night opening of the Galleries as they display the brightest natural colour found on Earth or wander through the illuminated Temperate House accompanied by the hypnotic soundscape composed by Jason Singh using biodata – the electrical impulses emitted by plants. Or stroll through the Gardens to encounter pop-up performances of classical music inspired by nature and listen to our scientific experts.

An evening walk wouldn’t be complete without an array of tasty plant-based snacks and botanical cocktails. The Pavilion Bar and Grill will be open into the evening for a sit-down dining experience amongst the trees.

Weekend dates through June and July are available on Kew Gardens’ site here.


Visitors’ safety  

It will be compulsory for visitors to wear a face mask inside the galleries and other indoor spaces unless they are exempt.

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